O Brother, Where Art Thou?


O Brother, Where Art Thou?(2000) Comedy (Touchstone) George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Charles Durning, Holly Hunter, Michael Badalucco, Del Pentecost, Chris Thomas King, Stephen Root, Daniel von Bargen, Frank Collison, Wayne Duvall, Musetta Vander, Mia Tate, Christy Taylor. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen have become one of America’s finest filmmaking combos, and for good reason. Looking at their portfolio, you see a common theme of understanding the cadences, rhythms and twangs of American speech, and seeing the cracked side of American life. In films such as Fargo, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy and Blood Simple, the characters are basically good but not particularly moral — there’s a criminal side to the heroes (with the exception of the Frances McDormand police chief in Fargo) that makes them charming, flawed but still in a realm to which the audience can relate.

Loosely (make that very loosely) based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?  begins with convict Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney) escaping a Mississippi prison farm with his dim cohorts Pete (Turturro) and Delmar (Nelson). They are off to find the loot hidden by McGill from an armored car job before the valley it resides in is flooded by a WPA project. They almost immediately run into a blind seer (Duvall) who predicts that they will find great treasure, albeit not the one they are seeking.

Along the way, they run into a variety of characters, from a one-eyed Bible salesman (Goodman), to a corrupt Mississippi governor running for re-election (Durning) to a blind radio station owner (Root) who records the three convicts singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” which, unbeknownst to the three Soggy Bottom Boys (so dubbed because Delmar and Pete elect to be baptized, to the amusement of McGill) has become a huge hit.

Heck, you even get to meet the manic/depressive Baby Face Nelson (Badalucco). They also run into three larcenous sirens and McGill’s wife, who is preparing to marry a man she considers “bona fide,” which McGill is not. When McGill objects to his wife remarrying and takes issue with her new suitor, he gets soundly thrashed and tossed out of a Woolworth’s, to his humiliation. Indeed, the three Soggy Bottom Boys do find a treasure beyond price, although they don’t realize it at the time.

The Coens capture the period perfectly, and give all the characters enough eccentricities to make them interesting, without making them overbearing. Clooney, in particular — with his obsession about his hair — commands attention. He is not “bona fide,” but that’s mostly bad luck. We root for him throughout and for his two dim-witted sidekicks. This is ostensibly a comedy, but it is a dry wit despite the occasional soggy bottom. The Coens lavish the characters here with interesting eccentricities and the actors repay him with excellent performances.

Refreshingly original, O Brother, Where Art Thou? remains quintessential Coen and those who love their movies, as I do, will love this one. Da Queen and I were laughing till our faces were beet red, particularly during an early train sequence, and at the final performance of the Soggy Bottom Boys near the end of the film. Clooney won a Golden Globe for his performance here, and I think it’s basically from this point he got taken seriously as an actor, as well as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

The humor isn’t for everyone – some find it a bit too quirky. Still, there are some pretty wonderful country-fried performances from Durning, Badalucco and Root and especially from Goodman, Hunter, Turturro and Nelson and of course Clooney steals the show. I’d never thought of him as a comic actor before this, but he is quite good at it as he has proven in several films since which you can always check out later. In the meantime, enjoy O Brother, Where Art Thou? and anticipate future celluloid from the Coen Brothers

WHY RENT THIS: Hysterically funny in places. Great performance from Clooney. Among the best the Coens have ever done.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If the Coens’ quirkiness isn’t you’re style you won’t like this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of violence and a few cursin’ words here and there.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a music video and a featurette that shows how the filmmakers obtained the golden hue that tones the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.9M on a $26M production budget; the movie was profitable although given the success of the soundtrack, probably more so than the box office receipts would indicate.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Raising Arizona

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Rashomon

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Top 5 George Clooney Movie Characters


George Clooney used his breakout role as Dr. Doug Ross in the hit TV medical drama “E.R.” to catapult him into movie stardom, a position he hasn’t relinquished in more than a decade. His charm and self-effacing humor have translated nicely to the big screen; it doesn’t hurt that his rugged good looks have kept him in the running for People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive honor during that entire run. Perhaps the most notable thing about Clooney’s career however, is his willingness to take on quirky roles that many mainstream stars would be loathe to tackle. Here are some of his more memorable ones.

HONORABLE MENTION

It’s hard to limit Clooney’s career to just five top roles; here are some that narrowly missed the cut. Bob Barnes in Syriana (2005) stood out in an ensemble drama enough to net Clooney his first (and only to date) Oscar as an aging, frustrated CIA Middle East operative who comes to find that everything he thought he was working for was a lie. Lyn “Skip” Casady in The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) is indicative of Clooney’s bread and butter off-center roles, as a career army officer who works for a strange and unique group of military psychics who intend to wage mental warfare on America’s enemies – but first must beat the games going on within their own ranks. In the title role of  Michael Clayton (2007), Clooney played a reprehensible lawyer who finally manages to grow a conscience (and no, it wasn’t science fiction). This is another Oscar nomination for Clooney, who has been nominated twice for acting and once each for writing and directing. Finally, Archie Gates in Three Kings (1999) was a Gulf War soldier with ambition, intelligence and more than a little greed in one of those Clooney movies that while not a major hit still remains a cult favorite today.

5. CAPTAIN BILLY TYNE, THE PERFECT STORM (2000)

 The Perfect Storm

Clooney doesn’t play real people very often, but in this depiction of one of the worst storms to hit the Northeast ever recorded, he captures the spirit of the captain of the ill-fated sword boat Andrea Gail. He’s a well-respected captain who was on a run of bad fishing that decided to go out farther than perhaps was safe, only to find a monster in between him and his home port. Clooney captured perfectly the working class courage of an old salt, the kind we would see later on reality shows like “The Deadliest Catch.”

4. SETH GECKO, FROM DUSK TIL DAWN (1996)

From Dusk Til Dawn

Robert Rodriguez turned the vampire movie clichés on their ears, not so much reinventing the vampire movie as injecting it with enough steroids to turn it into Arnold Schwarzenegger with fangs. Clooney co-starred with director Quentin Tarantino as the Gecko brothers, a couple of small-time hoods on the run who kidnap a family and take them to an unlikely place – a Mexican titty bar – that is the front for a group of vampires who lure humans in to feed upon. Gecko is vicious, merciless and quite frankly the perfect antihero.

3. RYAN BINGHAM, UP IN THE AIR (2009)

Up in the Air

 Clooney’s most recent Oscar nomination was for this movie, in which he plays a corporate consultant who firms hire specifically to inform employees they’ve been laid on. In order to insulate himself from the emotions of the job, Bingham develops a taste for the itinerant life, living out of a suitcase going from airport to airport, anonymous hotel to anonymous hotel in cities all over the country. Nobody does the emotionally insulated character better than Clooney does.

2. ULYSSES EVERETT MCGILL, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? (2000)

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Early on in Clooney’s film career he developed a rapport with the Coen Brothers who would later go on to direct him in such films as Burn After Reading and Intolerable Cruelty. Their best collaboration however was in this Depression-set movie which was VERY loosely based on Homer’s “The Odyssey” and featured Clooney as a fast-talking ex-convict with a love of Dapper Dan pomade that equals that of his love for his wife. The movie is quirky and refreshing, full of cornbread humor and soggy bottoms. It’s definitely among my favorite movies ever.

1. DANNY OCEAN, OCEAN’S 11, OCEAN’S 12, OCEAN’S 13 (2001, 2004, 2007)

Oceans Twelve

This is a bit of a no-brainer; while perhaps McGill would be Clooney’s best performance ever, this is going to be the character he will be remembered for; the ultra-suave, super-smart thief Danny Ocean who robs three Las Vegas casinos with a crew of the best there are at what they do, all while chasing down his ex-wife who divorced him while he was in prison. There would go on to be two more Oceans movies, all of which are among Clooney’s biggest hits. It takes a great deal to out-do the Rat Pack but that’s just what director Steven Soderbergh, Clooney and his band of merry men (and women) did.